Thanks to David Stanley and his South Pacific Travel Blog for the his updates on conditions in Fiji.
Australia’s strategy of active intervention in the affairs of the region under the flag of stability, security, and democracy promotion is taking it on the chin in Fiji.
Canberra’s profoundly flawed favorite, Prime Minister Laisenia Qarase, was deposed last December in a coup led by Commander Frank Bainimarama.
In Fiji, the unfinished business of empire—tribal loyalties, race, and class—have overwhelmed Australia’s preferred narrative of economic development and regional security cooperation under its leadership.
Domestic and regional opposition to the coup has collapsed and Bainimarama is now free to play the China card—threatening closer ties to Beijing to force Australia and New Zealand to back off on sanctions.
And it’s working.
Find out what happened when Australia made the wrong choices and found itself on the losing side in Fiji’s difficult transition to a democratic multi-ethnic post-colonial society.
The leader of Fiji’s coup, Frank Bainimarama, has turned to Beijing in response to sanctions led by Australia and New Zealand.
As I wrote in The Poisoned Cup: Racial and Neo-Colonial Politics in Fiji, Fiji is one of several South Pacific societies struggling with a transition beyond the feudal and aristocratic social institutions of the colonial era, and Australia’s clumsy attempt to exploit the subsequent political divisions to assert a regional leadership role.
Australia placed a disastrous bet on the faction of Fijian prime minister Laisenia Qarase (democratically-elected, corrupt, reckless promoter of chauvinist policies) in a struggle with the leader of Fiji’s armed forces, Commodore Bainimarama (authoritarian, patriot, little patience for constitutional niceties, maybe has his fingers in a pie or two).
According to David Stanley’s blog, it appears very difficult for Australia to beat Bainimarama over the head with the democracy promotion club on the international propaganda front:
The Fiji Army has released recordings which seem to prove that the deposed SDL party rigged the May 2006 general election in Fiji by stuffing ballot boxes in 10 marginal urban seats...If the allegations can be proved, the actions of Commodore Bainimarama in removing the Qarase government from power have been vindicated.
The international real estate developers and resort operators who are the backbone of Fiji’s economy have probably thrown in their lot with Bainimarama in defiance of Australia.
Their interests would be threatened by the return of the deposed Qarase government, whose dangerous political game of promoting blatantly racialist policies in Fiji’s multi-racial society included a proposed law that would have given control of the nation’s beachfronts to Fiji’s tribal chiefs and forced the resorts to pay them for access rights.
With the recent announcement that the Great Council of Chiefs has decided to work with the Bainimarama government, the local Fijian elite has opted for unity over confrontation.
Australia is deprived of the moral high ground, with diminished economic leverage, and with no hope of backing a serious local challenger to the coup.
Now Bainimarama is holding the high cards and dealing from a position of strength, not desperation, to dilute the sanctions that the West has imposed.
Fiji has already successsfully split off many South Pacific Island nations from the Australian and New Zealand position, and Bainimarama is relying on a favorable report from an “Eminent Persons Group” composed largely of islanders to smooth the way for normalization of relations:
The four-member EPG headed by Vanuatu's Deputy Prime Minister and Foreign Affairs Minister Sato Kilman is on a fact-finding mission to Fiji to access the cause of the December 5 military coup. The EPG also comprises of Samoa's Minister for Natural Resources and Environment Faumuina Luiga, retired Chief Justice of Papua New Guinea Sir Arnold Amet and retired Chief of the Australian Defence Force, General Peter Cosgrove.
While the military action copped huge criticism by its bigger neighbours Australia and New Zealand, members of the Melanesian Spear Head Group (MSG) countries sanctioned the action prompting the Forum to meet and send off the EPG mission to Fiji.
"Besides Australia and New Zealand, the other forum island countries have left us to sort our own affairs," Bainimarama added.
The diplomatic end-game is now being played, with Bainimarama threatening to “Look North” and displace Australia and New Zealand from their positions of influence in Fijian economic and foreign affairs.
In a sure sign that things are not going swimmingly in its Fiji policy, the Australian government has been keeping its head down and allowing the designated moderate in the regional security partnership, New Zealand, do the talking.
Bainimarama fired the first salvo. On January 22nd, the Sydney Morning Herald carried this riposte:
FIJI should not look to China for support as it won't find any, warns New Zealand Prime Minister Helen Clark.
Hmmm. Tough talk. What’s behind it?
Miss Clark said that during talks with Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao in the Philippines just over a week ago she was reassured that China supported New Zealand's actions in the Pacific.
''China indicated through him they were very concerned about instability in the South Pacific and specifically indicated considerable support for what New Zealand was doing in the region,'' she said.
Not a particularly convincing or intimidating statement.
It also begs the question of why New Zealand finds it necessary to speak on China’s behalf.
Prime Minister Clark would have been more convincing if she had been able to say that China supports the sanctions on Fiji—or, better yet, if the Chinese had said so themselves.
The Chinese government is certainly sympathetic to Bainimarama and would love to make diplomatic hay in the region in the expense of Australia and New Zealand.
But Fiji is a long way from home and lacks a large and assertive Chinese community to provide political and diplomatic cover.
So one can expect China to tread softly and respond discretely and circumspectly to Bainimarama’s request for financial support to replace the EU and Australian and New Zealand aid cut off by sanctions.
And not take offense at Clark’s piece of pre-emptive spin-meistering meant to forestall Fijian efforts to expand the diplomatic dialogue beyond the immediate region.
Especially since the diplomatic front against the coup seems to be crumbling on its own.
There have been indications that Australia’s push to assert a regional leadership role that includes a right to intervene militarily in the affairs of the region has left it overextended and underappreciated, perhaps even by the United States. Ganesh Chand, an important Indo-Fijian political figure and founder of the University of Fiji, discussed the Fiji’s geopolitical situation in December.
Chand says the U.S., given its keenness to curtail Chinese influence in the region, will ultimately send a strong message to Australia that its policy of alienating institutions and people in Fiji has not been working. The U.S. has already been doing this indirectly through annual state department reports.
‘'Sooner than later, the U.S. will make known to Australia that its policy in Fiji (and the Pacific) has been alienating the regional nations from the western sphere of influence. China is ready with open arms and cheque books to take the place of the western nations. "
This may be another example of wishful thinking and pre-emptive spinning on par with Clark’s statement.
The Bush administration is primarily interested in buttressing shaky international support for its diplomatic and military moves in the Middle East, and Australia is one of its few loyal allies. It is unlikely to cut the legs out from under Australia’s Howard administration over Fiji.
However, with the Canberra-Wellington alliance embroiled in a series of acrid disputes with the intended objects of its neo-colonialist benevolence in the Solomon Islands and Papua New Guinea, and the Bainimarama regime making serious diplomatic headway with the island nations of the region, America’s sheriff and deputy sheriff in the Antipodes may have decided that a discrete climbdown vis a vis Fiji is in order.
The New Zealand Herald reported:
...the Government struggles over what stance to take on Fiji, where it is increasingly clear there is no real prospect of the ousted Government of Laisenia Qarase returning to power.
The New Zealand government, although it had threatened that cut-off from the U.N. peacekeeping cash cow would be a consequence of the coup, has refused to criticize a recent decision by the UN to recruit three dozen Fijian soldiers for peacekeeping duties in Iraq.
Prime Minister Clark’s remarks warning Fiji off from the China connection also implied that a face-saving timeline could also lead to sanctions being lifted with Bainimarama still holding power:
Helen Clark said New Zealand's position - of not moving on sanctions until Fiji started to restore democracy - stood.
"The New Zealand Government position is very clear - that is we are waiting to see from those who have seized power in Fiji what their proposals are for a pathway back to constitutional government, and that of course would include some very clear signals that political freedom and freedom of speech and media are to return to Fiji.
To “start” to restore democracy.
That doesn’t seem too hard.
How about five years?
On January 29, Fijilive reported:
Fiji's interim Prime Minister Commodore Voreqe Bainimarama has told the Forum Eminent Persons Group that it will take Fiji five years before democracy is restored.
Well, maybe five years is a bit too much, according to the New Zealand government:
"If there's going to be an interim administration in Fiji that's not democratically elected for five years then sanctions would stay in place for five years."
Seems this situation could go on forever.
Those sanctions are starting to sound pretty toothless.
Well, they are.
In December, the Government suspended new aid initiatives in Fiji and reviewed existing ones.
It confirmed yesterday that of the $8 million aid funding for the 2006/07 year, just $1.8 million would be cut as much of the money had been allocated before the coup.
Next year, $3.6 million is scheduled to be cut, although it will be available to be rechannelled through NGOs.
Doesn’t look like the Bainimarama government’s going anywhere.
Australia and New Zealand seem about ready to throw in the towel.
It looks like Prime Minister Clark has been charged with sending the message to Bainimarama: “You’ve won, but don’t rub our noses in it. Don’t play footsie with China and upset the regional security applecart and we’ll let the coup matter slide.”
Bainimarama is not home free. By opposing indigenous Fijian chauvinism and standing with the Indo-Fijians, Bainimarama set up a confrontation with the Great Council of Chiefs—a hereditary aristocracy with genuine political power that has traditionally commanded the loyalty of native Fijians-- which had originally refused to support the coup.
Bainimarama seems to be banking on ordinary Fijians accepting the army as a legitimate and effective modern political institution, and resigning themselves to the sidelining of the admittedly archaic and non-representative Great Council of Chiefs.
Tarcisius Tara Kabutaulaka, a research fellow at the East-West Center in Hawaii, commented:
Interestingly, this coup challenges, not only the rule of law, but also the centrality of chiefly authority as manifested in the Great Council of Chiefs (GCC). This is partly because of perceptions that some chiefs have unequally benefited from current arrangements without redistributing the benefits to their people.
In reaction to the military takeover, a number of chiefs called on their people in the military not to support the commander’s "illegal takeover". Amongst them was the Tui Namosi, Ratu Suliano Matanitobua and Marama Roko Tui Dreketi, Ro Teimumu Kepa, who called on their men in the military to "lay down their arms and return to their villages."
The soldiers from Namosi, however, refused to heed their chief’s call and came out in the media expressing their support for the commander. Further, a delegation from Nabukavesi Village in Namosi this week presented their sevusevu (present) to the military commander to show support for the military takeover.
In another show of defiance to chiefly authority, Commodore Bainimarama shamelessly ordered the eviction of his own high chief of the Kubuna Confederacy, the Vice-President and Roko Tui Bau, Ratu Joni Madraiwiwi, from his official residence. Ratu Joni is a man who, for many Fijian citizen, represents unity. He is not only a high chief, but also a former high court judge and respected member of the legal fraternity who took on the Vice-President position with much reluctance.
On January 11, the Great Council of Chiefs agreed to work with Bainimarama:
THE last bastion of opposition to the takeover of power in Fiji by the military commander, Frank Bainimarama, appeared to collapse yesterday when the Great Council of Chiefs threw its weight behind the new interim administration.
The council chairman, Ratu Ovini Bokini, said it was time for Fiji to "move forward" and he called on the ousted prime minister, Laisenia Qarase, and his colleagues to work towards the country's betterment.
The Great Council of Chiefs is a elitist colonial anachronism created by the British. Hopefully it will be able to accommodate the forces toward modernization and egalitarianism unleashed by Fiji’s political turmoil, and the ethnic and class forces tearing at Fiji—and the political opportunists who exploit them—can be overcome by a shared desire for unity and peace and quiet.
As long as the Western powers lack the stomach for serious intervention in Fiji, and if Bainimarama can gain sub rosa support from China and the other Asian powers to keep its critical tourist and sugar industries humming despite government sanctions by the West, his coup has a good chance of succeeding.
And that will leave Australia holding a losing hand--and China in a favored position in Suva.